Trillian sends Astra into beta


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What next, Duke Nukem Forever? All right, that may be a cheap shot -- we've only been waiting three years for the release of Trillian Astra, the update of the IM software that once owned the multi-service chat realm. The software moved from alpha to beta late last week.

Over the course of those three years, of course, we've seen radical changes in how we "do" instant communications (after all, what is Twitter but a one-to-many instant-messaging service?), and we've rethought which services we include in our must-monitor lists. And there's a new breed of services out there, too -- free stuff such as Digsby and Pidgin/Gaim, and run-anywhere Web-based options such as Meebo.

To that end, Astra radically expands the list of services on which it can keep you connected, and expands too the devices you can use to do so. Our tests found some highly encouraging new features afoot -- and a few we hope we see sooner rather than later as the beta process opens to the public.

The beta is currently open to Windows users only; Mac OS X and, intriguingly, iPhone users are also invited to sign up for testing accounts, but beta on those platforms hasn't begun. Beta's also not quite ready on the promised Web interface to the service, one of (if we are to believe the chatter on Cerulean's discussion threads) most hotly anticipated new features. There's no Linux version, either, though BSD and Unix versions are on tap.

Are you online? At all? Astra's probably got one of your communications services covered: Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, GTalk, ICQ, Facebook, MySpace, Skype, Jabber, IRC, Twitter, IMAP and POP mail (functionality promoted from previous plug-in status), and Bonjour in addition to Trillian's own service. The list compares well to that of Digsby, arguably Astra's nearest current competitor; Bonjour, Skype and proprietary-chat support are unique to Astra, but Digsby's support for LinkedIn was missed by your Astra reviewer.

In years past, a certain amount of Trillian development effort had to go to maintaining connectivity to IM services that didn't necessarily want a third-party chat client available. With that foolishness consigned to the dustbin of history, developers were free to turn their attentions to the user interface, and the result is Cordonata. A cordonata, offline, is an inclined road with step-like ridges transversing its length.

Online, this translates to an interface with multiple sections, arranged horizontally, with mail, chat contacts, and Web input (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) groups above a well-thought-out dashboard. I found the interface easy to tweak to my needs -- important if you're the sort of person that might have too many threads to keep track of, since the chirping and the bubble notifications can verge on the distracting. That's especially true when you look up just in time to have them fade off-screen; fortunately, that aspect of the interface is appropriately configurable.

Trillian Astra betaThere are a few versions of the interface so far, including a relatively minimalist version, but I found that it was easiest to use with the interface sized large enough to make my social-networking feeds glanceable. (Oddly, the service displays Twitter messages in a fairly raw fashion; I couldn't click on URLs in tweets, and the tweet texts didn't wrap or scroll. Direct messaging is possible through the interface as are public replies.) Chats themselves were fairly elegant once I fled the iChat-like "bubble" interface for... well, either of the others is an improvement.

Skinning the new system is simpler than it has been in previous versions, and skins can be built for just one component, if that's the only screen item for which one feels a personalization yen. I expect a lot of skinning attempts to be made on Trillian Mini, a customizable widget suitable for posting on one's own Web site or in other places that allow a widget. Powered (as is the upcoming Web version) by Flash 9, Trillian Mini presents your current online status, user icon, and several other snippets of personal data -- no worries, you get to choose -- on your Web page. There's no current indication that a Mini widget will be made available for Facebook and similar services, but it's an obvious next step.

A few of the nooks and crannies of the interface take a couple of seconds to parse, but make themselves appealing. The "Knowledge Bar" at the top of our chat windows is a nice feature, but it behaved a little strangely in our tests. The idea is that it includes an RSS-style feed from multiple sources, but right now the only feed feeding seems to be the Cerulean Studios blog. The History tab, on the other hand, was working perfectly; Trillian's always been terrific at managing its messaging archives, and the new system reminds this regular Adium user just how much she's been missing. Meanwhile, a third feature -- automatic linkage of words in chats to Wikipedia -- worked fairly well, which proved useful when discussing the newly ubiquitous Susan Boyle video with friends fellow researchers.

Speed was decent, especially for an early beta. It's not clear that the Twitter option is pulling in my entire tweetstream, but that problem is apt to reside with the microblogging service's notoriously cranky API. Likewise, I found video quality in need of adjustment, but again well within what I'd consider acceptable beta-period parameters.

I wasn't able to fully test one of Astra's more unusual features, but what I saw of its support for drawing and pen-mode interfaces was encouraging. If you're using a Tablet PC and communicating with someone using Astra IM or Windows Live, you can use the pen interface to do your chatting. Likewise, I'm excited for the Web version, not least because it's clear from the Cerulean discussion boards that there'll be no Linux-native version of the software until rather later, and for any further efforts the Cerulean crew can make toward integrating Skype's (very much closed) protocols into the package.

But Astra's a tremendously interesting beta in a software category for which I for one am happy to pay a small fee to get the very best tools. After three years it took a major rewrite to get my attention, but they've got it.

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